The Courage and Cowardice of Vasily Grossman

Stalingrad represents yet another effort by the author to elevate the intimately personal over the anonymously political.

Becca Rothfeld
January 13, 2020
Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Schwerin, Germany, 1945.

Discussed in this essay: Stalingrad, by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler. NYRB Classics, 2019. 1088 pages.

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler. NYRB Classics, 2006. 904 pages.

THE RUSSIAN JEWISH NOVELIST VASILY GROSSMAN grasped an important corollary to the now tired truism that the personal is political: he knew, that is, that a morally defensible politics must be personal. At the beginning of Life and Fate, his 1960 opus, he observes that the “very uniformity” of the barracks in a Nazi concentration camp serves to dehumanize. In contrast, “[a]mong a million Russian huts you will never find even two that are exactly the same. Everything that lives is unique. It is unimaginable that two people, or two briar-roses, should be identical.” 

For Grossman, life consists in the assertion of uniqueness. It follows that murder is most essentially a means of homogenization. Five hundred pages after Grossman first describes the horrible uniformity of the camps, a group of Ukrainian Jews stumbles into the gas chamber where they are doomed to die. Grossman reflects that the universe inside of each of them “had something in it that distinguished the sound of its ocean, the smell of its flowers, the rustle of its leaves, the hues of its granite and the sadness of its autumn fields both from those of every other universe . . . and from those of the universe that exists eternally outside people.”

Life and Fate is, among other things, a novel about the twin forces of fascism and totalitarianism; it is a monumental depiction of Soviet life under German occupation, pivoting with unflinching agility from the brutalities of the battlefield to the gutting depravities of the Nazi camps to the devious terrors inflicted in Stalin’s prisons. But it is more centrally a novel about the stubbornly distinctive universes that continue to flicker within people even as their last hopes dim and their last comforts dwindle—the petty universes of bureaucrats who begrudge their colleagues a ration allowing for an extra egg, the desolate universes of mourners who speak out of habit to the dead, the famished universes of soldiers craving cabbage pie. 

Perhaps the most surprising thing about history, at least by Grossman’s lights, is that it does not obliterate daily life. After all, bureaucrats and mourners and soldiers alike were able to keep on having babies and listening to music as their world collapsed around them. One of Life and Fate’s most memorable passages appears in the letter that Anna Semyonova, a Ukrainian Jew, has smuggled to her son, the physicist Viktor Shtrum. In what will prove to be her final missive, she describes the ghetto where the Jews await their death:

People carry on, Vitya, as though their whole life lies ahead of them. It’s impossible to say whether that’s wise or foolish—it’s just the way people are. I do the same myself. There are two women here from a shtetl and they tell the same story as my friend did. The Germans are killing all the Jews in the district, children and old men included. The Germans and Ukrainian police drive up and recruit a few dozen men for field-work. These men are set to dig ditches and two or three days later the Jewish population is marched to these ditches and shot. Jewish burial mounds are rising up in all the villages round about . . . 

Our turn will come in a week or two, according to plan. But just imagine—I still go on seeing patients and saying, “Now bathe your eye regularly with the lotion and it will be better in two or three weeks.” I’m taking care of one old man whose cataract it will be possible to remove in six months or a year.

I give Yura French lessons and get quite upset at his bad pronunciation . . . Not long ago we even had a wedding . . .

The personal triumphs over the political, in the form of a wedding celebrated on the edge of the abyss.

STALINGRAD, Grossman’s 1952 precursor to Life and Fate, represents yet another effort to elevate the intimately personal over the anonymously political—at least in some respects. The nearly thousand-page account of the Battle of Stalingrad does not lack for personalities: a total of 150 characters are significant enough to appear on the “List of Characters” assembled by the editors at the end of the first English translation, released by NYRB Classics this past summer. (“To keep this list to a manageable length,” the editors note, “we have not, for the main part, included minor characters who appear only in a single chapter.”) At the center of the book’s vast nexus are the Shaposhnikov family and their spouses, ex-spouses, would-be spouses, and friends—all of whom reappear, in much richer color, in Life and Fate.

More than a decade ago, John Lanchester reported in the London Review of Books that Stalingrad is “regarded by those who have read it as a Socialist Realist dog, in which the characters, no more than ‘names with problems’, wander round spouting Stalinist clichés.” Perhaps this is why the novel is appearing in English translation only now—and this despite its close kinship with Life and Fate, which has been widely hailed as one of the greatest books of the 20th century. 

For my money, Life and Fate is one of the greatest books, period: the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, artists, scientists, political prisoners, and informers who crowd its many pages are virtuosically choreographed, and the resulting epic is symphonic. In Stalingrad, by contrast, the throng is just unruly. Plotlines fray and fail to cohere. Characters make a single appearance before dropping out of the book altogether. Worst of all, where Life and Fate is vitally personal, Stalingrad borders on propaganda. How could the very same person—the very same universe—have written such clashing books?

LIFE AND FATE is personal not only in its treatment of its characters, but also in its relation to its author: it borrows heavily from Grossman’s firsthand experiences as a war correspondent for the Red Army newspaper, and much of it is loosely autobiographical. Like its protagonist, Viktor Shtrum, Grossman was raised by an assimilated Jewish mother. Like Viktor, Grossman contemplated inviting his mother to live with him, but ultimately refrained at his wife’s behest. And like Viktor, Grossman lost his mother to the Nazis: like Anna Semyonova, Grossman’s mother was herded into a Ukrainian ghetto, shot, and deposited in a mass grave with the rest of the Jews from her town.

Life and Fate is Grossman’s attempt to stage a resurrection. As he wrote in a letter to his mother on the 20th anniversary of her murder, “When I die you will continue to live in this book.” Anna echoes Grossman’s promise at the end of her indelible letter to Viktor: “Live, live, live for ever,” she instructs. Later, a six-year-old at the threshold of the gas chambers releases the chrysalis he has been carrying on his journey to the camp, thinking, “Let it live!” Let it live: let it continue to guard the miracle of its unique universe, just as Grossman guards his exhaustively imagined characters from the onslaught of forgetting. 

But Grossman was braver on the page than he managed to be in his life. He resembles Viktor in another respect: like his best-known character, he displayed both extraordinary courage and extra­ordinary cowardice in the face of Soviet corruption. He began his career as a darling of the Party, and his early works were vaunted by establishment figures like the celebrated writer Maxim Gorky. In 1952, he even stooped to signing a petition that called for the execution of prominent Jewish doctors alleged to have orchestrated an attempt on Stalin’s life—a document that all but launched the antisemitic campaign that Stalin spearheaded in his paranoid old age. 

Yet Grossman was also a fierce and early advocate for victims of the Nazi genocide. His vivid 1944 article, “The Hell of Treblinka,” was one of the first accounts of an extermination camp, and as a member of the post-war Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, he worked alongside other eminent Jewish intellectuals to document the massacre of the Slavic Jews—much to the chagrin of the Party, whose official position was that all groups had suffered equally under fascism. In 1952, the committee’s research was suppressed, and most of its members were tortured and killed in Lubyanka prison. Stalin’s death in 1953 is likely all that saved Grossman from a similar fate.

Before he succumbed to stomach cancer in 1964, Grossman risked everything again, this time in a futile attempt to fight for Life and Fate, a book so critical of the Soviet regime that one censor estimated it could be published only a minimum of 200 years in the future. After KGB officers confiscated his manuscript, Grossman wrote a letter—to Khrushchev himself!—begging for “freedom for my book.” By 1980, the book was free: Grossman had had the foresight to distribute contraband copies to his friends.

STALINGRAD was never suppressed, but it does not smack of freedom. Originally published as For a Just Cause, it dates from Grossman’s lackey period. Predictably, it was initially well received in powerful circles; it was even nominated for a prestigious Stalin prize. But as Stalin fanned the flames of antisemitism, favorable judgments of Jewish writing were reversed en masse. Grossman’s publishers halted his book’s printing. One well-known writer went so far as to describe it as “spittle in the face of the Russian people.” Several months later, when Stalin died, Grossman’s publishers renewed their offer. The book’s “only ideological fault,” writes Josef Škvorecký with contempt in The New York Review of Books, “seems to have been that it was written by a Jew.” 

This assessment is not entirely accurate. As Robert Chandler points out in the introduction to the impressive new translation he completed with his wife, Elizabeth Chandler, Stalingrad is more subversive than it might at first appear. Grossman names one of his protagonists, the affable peasant soldier Pyotr Vavilov, after Nikolai Vavilov, a biologist who was imprisoned in the first wave of Stalinist purges. Even Viktor Shtrum is likely something of an homage—to Lev Shtrum, a physicist who was executed in 1936 and subsequently written out of Soviet scientific history. Grossman went to school with two of Shtrum’s cousins and probably knew him well. 

There is also good reason to regard Stalingrad as a subtle rejoinder to Gorky, who cautioned a young Grossman against countenancing (much less voicing) impolitic truths. When Grossman suggested in a letter to his mentor that “the truth can never be counter-revolutionary,” Gorky replied that there are “two truths”—“the vile and dirty truth of the past” and “another truth that has been born and continues to grow.” One of the Shaposhnikovs, Maryusa, parrots Gorky when she urges her sister, Zhenya, an experimental painter, to produce propagandistic art:

Instead of strange daubs no one can understand, you should paint posters. But I know what you’ll say next. You’ll start going on about truth to life . . . How many times do I have to tell you that there are two truths? There’s the truth of the reality forced on us by the accursed past. And there’s the truth of the reality that will defeat the past.

“No,” replies a family friend, the Jewish surgeon Sofya. “You’re wrong. I can tell you as a surgeon that there is one truth, not two. When I cut someone’s leg off, I don’t know two truths. If we start pretending there are two truths, we’re in trouble.” A passage from Life and Fate reiterates Sofya’s arguments: “There is only one truth. There cannot be two truths. It’s hard to live with no truth, with scraps of truth, with a half-truth. A partial truth is no truth at all.”

Still, in Stalingrad, it is largely the state-sanctioned “truth” that Grossman defends. The small rebellions to which Chandler directs our attention in his introduction are difficult for the uninitiated to detect, and they carry little aesthetic weight: the book’s loud shouts of knee-jerk patriotism drown out its low murmurs of resistance. Much of Stalingrad’s dialogue could have been lifted from the script of a blockbuster action movie. The brave director of a power plant begs to remain in Stalingrad at great personal risk because “[w]e’re all Stalingraders now.” At every opportunity, characters launch into implausible advertisements for Soviet industry. “In a single day the Barricades produces enough guns to equip an artillery regiment,” one worker effuses. “The Tractor Factory sends out a hundred tanks each month. These factories are our giants, our titans.” 

 “The brotherhood of all Soviet workers” persists even “in the churned up mud of the front line.” (Never mind that Grossman would queasily describe the smell of the front line as a “cross between that of a morgue and that of a blacksmith’s” in Life and Fate eight years later.) One Soviet officer can even sense “the unity of the tens of millions of his brothers and sisters who had risen to fight for the people’s freedom.” But they hadn’t risen; they had been conscripted. Many of them had been beaten into submission during the forced collectivization efforts of the 1930s, in which millions of farm workers starved to death. In Stalingrad, Grossman writes that Stalin’s infamous 1942 “Not a step back!” order  “summoned men to their highest duty.” In reality, the order forbade troops from retreating—and ultimately yielded the execution of over 10,000 “deserters.”

Often, Stalingrad’s paeans to the quiet heroism of the workers are transparent glorifications of uncompensated labor. Andreyev, a steel worker who often takes on extra shifts just for the joy of it, “did not in the least feel he was making a sacrifice; on the contrary, he felt happy and well.” Even when his peers agree to produce a surplus of steel and reach “the limits of human endurance,” “many of them felt happy—these long hours of heavy labour, day and night, gave them a sense of freedom.” But overwork is not a privilege, any more than lying maimed and mutilated on the Stalingrad front was a privilege, any more than the Red soldiers enlisted for fun. 

AT ONE POINT IN STALINGRAD, Viktor’s beloved teacher warns him that “[m]any people living in normal social conditions have no idea of the cellars and basements of their own being.” Viktor dismisses his mentor’s dark remark, opting instead for the glib, unadventurous optimism so typical of socialist realism. But his teacher’s admonition proves prophetic: in Life and Fate, Viktor descends to the cellars of his being when he signs a letter denouncing his colleagues—just as Grossman signed his name to a petition condemning the innocent Jewish doctors. It is a testament to the chilling strength of the Soviet regime that the author of Life and Fate signed his name to Stalingrad, too. 

In Life and Fate, when Viktor is alone in his study, he becomes aware of “an invisible force . . . crushing him. He [can] feel its weight, its hypnotic power; it was forcing him to think as it wanted, to write as dictated.” Grossman writes, “Only people who have never felt such a force themselves can be surprised that others submit to it. Those who have felt it, on the other hand, feel astonished that a man can rebel against it even for a moment—with one sudden word of anger, one timid gesture of protest.” Though Grossman sometimes wrote as the force dictated, his eventual rebellion was more than a timid gesture. Stalingrad represents the hideous norm. Life and Fate is the miracle.

Becca Rothfeld is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard.